You just participated in the extreme kayak world championship in Austria (Sickline): why start extreme kayak? Is it a new kind of challenge for you after winning the bronze at the Olympic Games 2012 ?
My priority at the Sickline in Ötztal is primarily to have fun. And I also very much enjoy taking part in a competition without having to navigate around slalom poles.
What are the main differences between extreme kayak and a discipline like canoeing slalom? What does each of these disciplines bring you ?
In contrast to canoeing slalom, at the Sickline I just have to race straight down the river. In the slalom training, it is mainly all about navigating perfectly through the course of hanging gates. Thanks to this training, I am physically fit for events like the Sickline. Only the right feeling for the power of the water is missing sometimes.
Do you use the same boats for extreme kayak and slalom ?
The boats are very different from one another: Kayaks for slalom are built of carbon fibre, can turn at very high speeds and are very thin and lightweight: they weigh just 12 kg. In contrast, white-water boats are made with conventional plastics, polyethylene, being rather slow and more bulky. In fact, composite materials have not yet been allowed in this discipline!
The bulkier size of these boats is essential to ensure better flotation, particularly when going over waterfalls. The minimum weight allowed for this type of race is 18 kg.
How do plastics contribute to the performances of these boats ?
White-water boats have to withstand frequent contact with rocks. Therefore, the plastic materials the boats are made of are very robust. This makes it possible for example to slide down the six metres from the top a cliff at the start of the Sickline.
The fact that the boats are made entirely from plastic or composites means that their shapes can be constantly improved, in order to achieve better performance in terms of speed, resistance and manoeuvrability, among others.
The "rocker" shape, which is particularly suited to white-water racing, was developed over the past few years. As in the case with skis, the front and back of the shell are slightly raised, enabling very quick changes of trajectories, and making it easier to navigate the difficult parts of the course involving crashing waves. Some brands try to create channels on boat decks in order to better drain the water and break it up into droplets.
Are you personally involved in the development of new boats?
Together with a Slovakian boat designer I have already co-developed two kayak slalom boats. It’s a lot of fun to realise my own ideas.
Since you have begun kayaking, what have been the major evolutions in equipment ? (boats, helmets, paddles, drysuits, etc.)
The most radical change was certainly the modification of the maximum length of the kayak slalom boats from four metres to three and a half metres over ten years ago. The boats suddenly became more manoeuvrable as a result. The materials themselves were at the centre of further developments: While glass fibre and Kevlar were mainly used for developing boats in the past, carbon fibre has almost exclusively become the preferred choice today. As a result, today’s boats are lighter and stiffer than previous generations.
The paddles can be either flexible or rigid, depending on the user's preference and the discipline practised. Most paddles are comprised of carbon fibre blades and a fibreglass handle.
The helmets' performance is constantly being improved and they are increasingly adapted to each specific event. The ABS shell absorbs repeated impacts while the EVA foam on the inside provide excellent comfort, good thermal insulation and shock protection.
Finally, years of experience in producing kayaking equipment have led to the development of hyper technical and 100% waterproof drysuits which are essential for white-water kayaking: 4-layer breathable fabric, latex wrists and neoprene neck joints, completely water-tight fasteners, reinforced knees, elbows and seat, for improved comfort and resistance to tearing.
It must be noted that the equipment required for extreme kayaking competitions is both heavier and bulkier than that required for the slalom event. There are many dangers to be found in wild rivers, the first being the cold, and that is why the regulations require entrants to wear either a full-body neoprene drysuit or waterproof trousers with a Kway (or now the full-body waterproof drysuits): this is the equivalent of several kilos to which are added the weight of a pair of shoes, a jacket with reinforced straps, and straps on other areas to enable people caught in a water trap to be rescued, and a river-grade helmet which includes ear protectors and a double external protective layer.